Thursday, 31 October 2019

Do I look like the kind of clown that can start a movement?

I've been a fan of Batman for about 16-ish years or so by this point in my life, and first discovered it through watching the 1989 movie starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. I was going through my Tim Burton phase that I think most teenagers of my generation that felt misunderstood went through, and Batman was one of the last of his films that I'd yet to watch which I wasn't too excited at the prospect of. Until I actually watched it anyway, then I fell completely in love with Gotham and it's residents and began fervently collecting the comic books as quickly as I could - which was difficult honestly, as comics weren't as prominent in the UK as they are today and it showed a great deal of determination on my part! I've always excitedly awaited each movie release, with mixed success - Christopher Nolan's trilogy will always be my favourites for their gritty realism, whereas Suicide Squad I prefer to forget the very existence of.

I initially had mixed feelings about the newly released Joker, mostly due to the amount of negative press it received leading up to its release, and my anxieties over what Hollywood was doing to such an important character in DC lore - especially after the hot mess that was Suicide Squad (yes I will drag that movie at every available opportunity, it was horrible). There seemed to be genuine concerns over whether Joker was going to try to legitimise this incel culture we have nowadays, but thankfully it ended up being far from that kind of narrative and shows that people shouldn’t be making assumptions about this film before they see it. In the few short weeks since this film's release it's become a movie that means a great deal to me for reasons I'm not even completely sure, I just felt so much, so intensely. I've seen it three times at the cinema so far, and fully intend to see it more which is a new experience for me - despite being such a huge fan of movies, I've only ever once before seen a film at the cinema twice, but I just feel like I can't see this film enough times and I want to savour the feeling of total immersion the cinema provides.

I don't feel like I need to really explain what this film is about - it's predominately a character study of Arthur Fleck's transformation into the Joker and gives one option as to a possible origin story. As such it's a difficult film to spoil as you know at the end he's going to become the Joker, but nonetheless I'd advise not reading further if you're bothered by potential spoilers as I will be talking at length about the plot.

I will say straight off the bat that this is a very uncomfortable film to sit through, but it's uncomfortable in all the right ways. It makes very valid criticisms about not only the poor vs rich, but also the way neurodivergent people are treated in society which was an aspect of the film that touched me the most. Arthur is portrayed as not only mentally ill, but also suffering from a brain injury and I just really liked this origin for the character of the Joker. Previously in both comics and movies he’s always felt like this kind of ridiculous character that would never appear in real life, and yet this film made him real. It was SO well acted by Joaquin Phoenix, he's absolutely mesmerising and obviously studied head trauma survivors. Most reviews that I've read seem to be skipping over that aspect and solely focusing on the mental illness, but it's stated several times - from his mothers hospital records we learn that as a child he was found tied to a radiator with "severe head trauma", and the card he hands to the woman on the bus states that his inappropriate laughter is caused by brain injury - and that is a legit symptom of brain injury. Making that the reason for his comic book style laugh was genius. I was so sad for him when he kept getting hurt and beaten for being "odd" when he wasn’t actually doing anything wrong, and this is the way disabled folk are treated every single day. It went there and I love it so much for that. I can understand if some want to keep Joker as a simple agent of chaos without purpose or motive, but if you are going to give him a backstory then this is it for me as it made him so believable and real.

Throughout the promotion of Joker I got the sense that they were trying to somewhat remove Joker from Batman with the many insistences that it was a standalone origin tale, but it was very firmly placed in canon and as a fan of the comic books I loved the side plot with Thomas Wayne. It set up the reasons for why Batman and Joker become arch enemies perfectly, and I loved seeing this other side to Thomas Wayne's character. Usually we only get to see him from Bruce Wayne/Batman's point of view, which is obviously hugely idolised as not only is he his dead father, but Bruce is from the same level of privilege as his father so wouldn't understand the perspective poor people had of him. He sees his father as a good guy who loves his city and wants to do everything he can to help those less fortunate than himself, whereas to Arthur Thomas is an out of touch entitled asshole who stands on the shoulders of poor people whilst referring to them as 'clowns', and possibly has an affair with Arthur's mother which he then covered up when she fell pregnant by having her committed and faking adoption papers - which I know is left up to interpretation, but I believe the photo Arthur finds of his mother as a young woman with a message from Thomas on the back is pretty damning evidence showing that the whole relationship wasn't Penny being delusional, and another example of how the rich can screw over the poor which is obviously a huge theme of the movie. Also, on subsequent viewings I've taken particular notice of Penny's story arc and when Arthur is looking through her medical notes at Arkham it briefly shows a note made by one of the psychiatrists that stated that Penny was insisting "I don't know why I'm here" regarding being committed, and I just really believe her and definitely think that Thomas Wayne is Arthur's dad which makes the whole thing even more tragic. Most reviews seem to think that the subway shooting was when Arthur transformed into the Joker, but personally I think it's when he kills Penny and no longer has anyone looking out for him at all and his realization that he's killed the only person that loved him. She was his final tether to reality, and without her he has no reason not to give in to the Joker side of himself.

I know that there have been a lot of complaints about the character of Joker being sympathised and pointing out all the ways in which he's actually a monster, but I feel like these people are missing the point. The Joker can have a sympathetic origin AND be all kinds of fucked up evil, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. It's a sad fact that people who have been victims of abuse don't always stay victims their whole lives, but sometimes go on to become abusers themselves as it's all they've ever known. People are rarely born evil, people are rarely even born mentally ill, they can just be more prone due to family history. And the whole point to the movie in the first place is that if he’d been shown some compassion sooner and gotten the correct help he needed instead of being left facing such extreme loneliness that he literally has delusions of people being nice to him and having positive relationships, had he not continually been abused both individually and by the system, then maybe he wouldn’t have turned out like that. Because as Arthur himself states in the film, you can’t be surprised when mentally ill people go on to exhibit mentally ill behaviour. One of the big turns in the movie is when the mental health funding in Gotham is entirely cut, so the therapy and medication Arthur is taking to help him is cut off. He doesn’t even know where he’d even get his medication any longer. Add to that the casual bullying he suffers in his day-to-day life, from the casual aggression of the woman on the bus even after learning he was disabled, to the assholes on the subway, these people are all too common in real life. If anything comes from the success of this movie, I’d love for it to make people kinder to neurodivergent people instead of shooting dirty looks to outright bullying because you find their behaviour “odd”. Their dignity and safety is no less important than you feeling a bit uncomfy just because you don’t understand why they’re behaving that way.

Anyway, overall I really loved this move if you couldn't tell, I love the character study and it's such a compelling retelling of one of my favourite characters, and the ending takes my breath away every time. I know comic book movies have dominated the box offices for years now, and I've been bored by them for a while. Joker feels like the antithesis to those, a comic book movie that doesn't feel like a comic book movie, and as a fan of comic books I'm all for that honestly.

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